Premier Stephen McNeil says he only found out last week his chief of staff, Laurie Graham, was interested in taking his job as leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party.
Graham has worked for McNeil in the premier's office since March 2016, first as principal secretary. She has been chief of staff since January 2019.
"I knew that people had called her thinking that she should run, and then I think last week she told me she owed it to them and to herself to consider it and that's what she's doing," he said following a ribbon cutting event in Kentville for a new hospice.
McNeil saw no problem with her continuing to be his top staffer despite her seeking support for a possible candidacy.
"Just as a cabinet minister may be considering it today, I have all the faith and confidence that she would not be using her position as the chief of staff in my office and she knows, as cabinet ministers know, that if they enter the race they will have to step down from their current positions."
Sources have told CBC News that Graham could step down to launch her bid as early as this week.
With the rules for the leadership campaign coming out today, the field is starting to narrow.
Municipal Affairs Minister Chuck Porter told CBC News on Monday that he's decided against making a run. Porter said he made the decision on the weekend.
Business Minister Geoff MacLellan and Health Minister Randy Delorey have also said they're out.
Their cabinet colleague, Labi Kousoulis, is considering a bid, he said Monday.
The Halifax Citadel-Sable Island MLA was first elected in 2013 and has served in several cabinet portfolios, most recently as labour and advanced education minister.
"I've had a lot of people reach out to me," said Kousoulis, a certified management accountant who said people he's talking with appreciate his financial background and the fact he spent time working in rural Nova Scotia.
"I don't take these decisions lightly. I will be talking to Liberals and Nova Scotians and moving forward."
Regan, Kousoulis mulling leadership bids
All signs also point to Community Services Minister Kelly Regan jumping in the race. The MLA for Bedford was first elected in 2009.
A statement from the "Kelly Regan Campaign" on Monday said the minister would announce her intentions at a formal event next week, and that she "continues to engage with party members around the province as she works toward this announcement."
Education Minister Zach Churchill and Immigration Minister Lena Diab have both said they're considering leadership runs.
Central Nova MP Sean Fraser, who is also the parliamentary secretary to the federal finance minister, and Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin have said they are weighing their options.
Asked about his thoughts on Graham's possible candidacy, McNeil suggested anyone taking over the party would be carrying on the work he started in the fall of 2013 when he led the Liberals back to power after almost 15 years on the opposition benches.
"Listen, I'm thrilled that Nova Scotians want to continue the work that we've had," he said. "The fact that we've had strong people stepping forward, I think it's a good idea that people outside of government are looking at it."
Premier plans to remain neutral
McNeil says he has spoken to other possible contenders about the job and offered them his advice and insight. He doesn't think Graham has an unfair advantage by being his chief of staff.
"No, I don't. I believe when the race starts, those who put their names forward will be at the same footing."
The premier said he plans to stay neutral in the upcoming campaign, as tradition dictates.
"Every one of them [has] called me, asked me my opinion [and for] my thoughts."
McNeil laughed when asked if he had dissuaded or asked any of the potential candidates to hold off throwing their hats in the ring.
"Not at all," he said.
"I've said to everyone my job will be to keep this team together as we go through a leadership process."
The Liberals will elect their new leader on Feb. 6. Candidates have until Oct. 9 to officially enter the race.
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